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Caramelizing v. browning onions


JAZ
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I learned, somewhere along the way (Jacques Pepin, maybe) that there's a difference between caramelizing onions, which is a slow process over low heat that involves the gradual browning of the sugars inside the onions after the liquid has evaporated away, and browning onions, which is down over higher heat and involves the Maillard reaction on the surface of the onions -- so the outsides are browned quickly, but the insides are still mostly white. Lately it seems that many cookbook authors don't make a distinction -- they'll say you can caramelize onions in 20 minutes, for instance. Or they'll show a photo of what clearly (to me, at least) is browned onions and call them caramelized.

Am I wrong in the belief that there's a difference? Browned onions certainly have a different taste and texture from what I call caramelized, but now I'm wondering. What's the story?

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JAZ, you are correct.

There is a big difference between onions that are slowly caramelized over fairly low heat and "browned" onions that are cooked more rapidly over higher heat.

The latter is the "classic" cooked onions served with liver and a bit of blackening on a few of the onions is okay (to my taste).

And, all the technical jargon aside, the various degrees of cooking onions can vary so widely that I don't think there could ever be a universal agreement about it.

What may seem underdone to me, may be perfect for someone else.

Edited by andiesenji (log)

"There are, it has been said, two types of people in the world. There are those who say: this glass is half full. And then there are those who say: this glass is half empty. The world belongs, however, to those who can look at the glass and say: What's up with this glass? Excuse me? Excuse me? This is my glass? I don't think so. My glass was full! And it was a bigger glass!" Terry Pratchett

 

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Do you notice a considerable difference in taste between quick-browned vs. slowly caramelized onions? Most of the time when I'm making...onions heated in oil...it's for use in a stew or curry or soup where the onion flavor sort of just melts into the background. For curries it makes a difference in the texture of the sauce, but I've never really thought about a difference in flavor.

The most recent cookbook I got says something about cooking onions until brown in a matter of 2-3 minutes for most recipes, which seems wrong, even on pretty high heat.

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Do you notice a considerable difference in taste between quick-browned vs. slowly caramelized onions?

I think I have. The quick browned onions have more of a charred, sometimes slightly bitter taste to them whereas with caramelized onions, it's mainly the sweetness I taste.

 

“Peter: Oh my god, Brian, there's a message in my Alphabits. It says, 'Oooooo.'

Brian: Peter, those are Cheerios.”

– From Fox TV’s “Family Guy”

 

Tim Oliver

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Do you notice a considerable difference in taste between quick-browned vs. slowly caramelized onions?

I think I have. The quick browned onions have more of a charred, sometimes slightly bitter taste to them whereas with caramelized onions, it's mainly the sweetness I taste.

Also, the texture is quite different. The long-cooked onions are very soft, kind of gelatinous. They're almost a paste. The quick brown ones, while not exactly crunchy, still have some body and the onion pieces remain separate.

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Julie Sahni recommends 20-25 minutes for evenly browning onions for most Indian dishes, and I've found that is about right. Requires good cutting skills for evenly sized pieces, and nearly constant stirring.

Many other writers e.g. Madhur Jaffrey underestimate the length of time required.

I learned the hard way not to try to caramelize anything in a Le Creuset, eventually found the confirmation in a Richard Olney cookbook. Do it in an all-clad or similar pan.

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Also, the texture is quite different. The long-cooked onions are very soft, kind of gelatinous. They're almost a paste. The quick brown ones, while not exactly crunchy, still have some body and the onion pieces remain separate.

And there is your difference explained: the ones that are cooked longer are more... well, cooked. Which is to say that the cell walls are more thoroughly broken down, etc. This is effectively the only difference. With quick-cooked onions, you are only really cooking and getting Maillard reactions on the surface of the onion while the interior is relatively unaltered, whereas with long-cooked onions you are getting reactions and temperature changes throughout the whole piece of onion. The browning reaction, meanwhile, is pretty much the same in both cases.

Your question is a bit like asking: "why are greens cooked for 1 minute different from greens cooked for an hour?" They're different because one is much more broken down by cooking than the other.

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. . . the ones that are cooked longer are more... well, cooked. Which is to say that the cell walls are more thoroughly broken down, etc. This is effectively the only difference. With quick-cooked onions, you are only really cooking and getting Maillard reactions on the surface of the onion while the interior is relatively unaltered, whereas with long-cooked onions you are getting reactions and temperature changes throughout the whole piece of onion. The browning reaction, meanwhile, is pretty much the same in both cases.

While I understand that the Maillard reaction is responsible for mostly of the browning in both cases, I always that there was some true caramelization in the long cooked onions. As you quoted Wolke in the topic linked to above:

. . . Maillard reactions are responsible for the good flavor of heat-browned, carbohydrate- and protein-containing foods such as grilled and roasted meats (yes, there are sugars in meats), bread crusts and onions. "Caramelized" onions do indeed taste sweet, because in addition to Maillard reactions, heating makes their starch break down into free sugars, which can then truly caramelize.

Is that not true?

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I think he misspeaks a bit in that first excerpt and then corrects himself in the second book where he says ". . . If we cook the onions uncovered, the released cel juices will quickly boil off and the temperature will rise from around 212F (100C) to perhaps 300F (149C) where the Maillard browning reactions proceed rapidly. The fact that some of the Maillard reactions are sweet is perhaps one reason why cooks are enticed into using the sugar word caramelize for this process. What they really mean, however, is taking the onions to a soft, golden tan -- the color of caramel candies -- but stopping short of actually browning them. . ." and most definitively where he says ". . . meat, poultry, fish, vegetables, and other protein-containing foods to not caramelize. They simply brown."

(The emphasis is mine.)

Edited by slkinsey (log)

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So I read the thread with SLKinsey's thorough write-up, and saw that video with the baking soda....just put half a teaspoon of baking soda on some onions now and they really turned into a brown mush. I'm not sure this is exactly what I wanted....does anybody else do this, and how much baking soda do you put?

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I caramelize about five pounds of onions at a time in my slow-cooker -- slice, pile into the slow-cooker, throw in a stick of butter, sprinkle on a little kosher salt, turn it on low and ignore it for about 18 hours. Perfectly caramelized onions, every time. I portion them out in about one-cup portions and freeze in plastic bags. And then when it's time for French onion soup -- thaw out a bag of frozen beef stock, a bag of frozen caramelized onions, add the big crouton, and Presto!

Don't ask. Eat it.

www.kayatthekeyboard.wordpress.com

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  • 1 month later...

Just to clarify, when you cook onions low and slow to 'caramelize' them, are we talking mainly about the sugars caramelizing, and less of maillard reactions?

I was under the impression that maillard reactions took place at a lower temperature than caramelization does (Ive read books that indicate caramelization occurs at 160-180C and Maillard occurs strongest at 149-154C. So Im a little confused about how it would be possible to trigger caramelization in onions without going through significant maillard reactions(a lot of browning)

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Just to clarify, when you cook onions low and slow to 'caramelize' them, are we talking mainly about the sugars caramelizing, and less of maillard reactions?

No, it's exactly the opposite. You are Maillardizing the onions. After you have done this, you can turn up the heat to high and caramelize some of the sugars. But caramelization doesn't happen until the temperature is fairly high, and it happens at different temperatures for different sugars: fructose begins at 110C/230F, galactose, glucose and sucrose begin at 160C/320F and maltose begins at 180C/356F. As you may imagine, you really only only have a chance of caramelizing the fructose in a wet food like onions.

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  • 3 weeks later...

I caramelize about five pounds of onions at a time in my slow-cooker -- slice, pile into the slow-cooker, throw in a stick of butter, sprinkle on a little kosher salt, turn it on low and ignore it for about 18 hours. Perfectly caramelized onions, every time. I portion them out in about one-cup portions and freeze in plastic bags. And then when it's time for French onion soup -- thaw out a bag of frozen beef stock, a bag of frozen caramelized onions, add the big crouton, and Presto!

Can you specify more on this?

I know a guy who needs to cook for twenty people on occasion, and this would save a lot of time and money.

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